words by daphne Chouliaraki milner
It’s been a year since industry leaders called for the fashion system to slow down and produce less. Now, physical shows are back in full swing—but so is the waste.
This September, while most brands presented their collections at trusty venues across Manhattan, Collina Strada hosted theirs on a rooftop farm in Brooklyn. Collina Strada’s show was not just unconventional in regards to geography; unlike many of their peers, the New York-based brand made it a priority to practice ecological caution and minimize waste throughout the production process.
This meant harvesting local vegetables from the farm, which is named Brooklyn Grange, to feed crew, cast and attendees. It also meant making show-goers aware of the importance of inner city farms by virtue of experiencing them firsthand. Collina Strada was careful to rent a venue that reflects the brand’s values, thereby financing a shared cause: the conservation and regeneration of green spaces. Even with a conscious approach such as this, the ecological impact of fashion shows seems to be unavoidable.
“Anything you do would be problematic,” said Hillary Tamour, founder of Collina Strada. “Just bringing that many people into one space is going to use energy. We rent all our equipment, but it still comes in trucks.”
Anything you do would be problematic
Conversations about the environmental damage caused by fashion week are becoming increasingly urgent. Last spring, as COVID-19 brought the world to a standstill, industry leaders called for the fashion system to be rewired. Digitize the production and presentation system. Reset the pace of the fashion calendar. The calls came shortly after a report by Ordre.com and Carbon Trust found that the travel undertaken by buyers and brands to participate in fashion month resulted in around 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.
Eighteen months later, and fashion month has undergone little tangible change.
“Think about it; there are all the people that come to the shows, all the ubers, all the flights [to bring overseas talent in],” said Taymour. “You’ve got these huge set designs that just automatically get thrown away. That, to me, is super wasteful.”
There are, of course, brands like Collina Strada that let ethics drive their decision-making processes. It’s something BIPOC designers have been doing for decades. Take Abrima Erwiah and Rosario Dawson’s Studio 189, a sustainable label that builds community by championing Indigenous craftspeople from across the African continent and celebrating Black heritage across the diaspora, which this season turned to poetry and song to commemorate those who lost their lives at 9/11. To cater their show, Studio 189 worked with Mangia NYC who only uses fresh, seasonal, farm-to-table ingredients.
And on the whole, designers are becoming increasingly literate in sustainable fashion—be it sourcing textiles using local supply chains, supporting regenerative agricultural practices or upcycling old collections. Less emphasis, however, is placed on the ecological byproduct caused by shows, shoots and productions.
“From my experience, the waste generated from a production is not spoken about enough or even considered [in the leadup to a show],” said London-based designer Phoebe English, adding that conversations around sustainability in fashion center on the ways clothes are produced rather than presented.
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Purpose-built single-use set design is one of the most polluting aspects of a fashion show. Oftentimes big budgets are set aside to build elaborate, large-scale sets out of plywood and plastic to impress the buyers and editors in attendance. The next day, however, they’re in the trash.
“The most amount of physical waste comes from one-time use of sets,” said stylist and consultant Rachael Wang. “On a basic, tangible level, using pre-existing venues rather than building ones from scratch to stage a show [would reduce waste]. As would assembling a set made of rented components that can be returned and used again.”
It’s a sentiment that’s echoed by English, who this year opted out of the traditional fashion show format in favor of an installation at the British Library in London.
“If we’re building a set, we make sure we’re not being frivolous by spending lots [of money] on materials that can only be used once, especially when we could be recycling them or renewing them,” said English. “And if we do decide to rent a location, we ask ourselves questions like how can we make sure that the money we are spending on the location stays within the community that lives there and uses that space?”
The most amount of physical waste comes from one-time use of sets.
This sense of social responsibility to local communities can—and should—expand far beyond a designer’s choice of location. Ensuring leftover food from fashion shows is reallocated among communities in need is another meaningful way to reduce waste and redistribute resources.
Every Day Action, a nonprofit that reallocates the food wasted on film sets to those living on the streets, has been doing this work for years. Based in LA, Every Day Action coordinates meal pickups from studios and locations and delivers the food to the city’s most vulnerable 24-hours a day. Saving food from landfills is a lesson the fashion industry would do well to learn, especially considering the fact that composting is slow, expensive and labor-intensive.
“Both industries have an incredible amount of resources, time, money, and brilliant minds thinking of new and inventive ways to create art [and] fashion,” said Every Day Action cofounder and president Hillary Cohen. “To say that figuring out what happens to the waste is too complicated or difficult is really just insulting to humanity. If we can create digital avatars or runways made of water with outfits over $20,000 walking down them; there is no way that the issue of waste can’t also be looked at with the same critical eye and thought.”
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Despite the fashion industry’s slow environmental progress, the pandemic has catalyzed a digital revolution. Online presentations have become more common, while virtual showrooms have seen major improvements over the last year in order to help buyers better examine collections remotely during lockdowns. It’s this shift to digital that some believe can help reduce fashion week’s carbon footprint in addition to “encouraging buyers to pay closer attention to local brands and local designers,” said Wang, adding that virtual shows can make touching garments a novelty. “Shows can be streamed and imagery can be provided to guests abroad without people having to travel in a way that we never had access to before.”
But while a more digitized industry will likely be less wasteful—because of online screenings of shows but also due to other factors like supply chain optimization and 3D design softwares—physical shows, which continue to have higher engagement rates than their virtual counterparts, show no sign of stopping.
“There’s just so much competition in fashion of who made the best and biggest show,” said Collina Strada’s Taymour. “The production level has gotten so competitive and so large. With those types of budgets, we should be making stronger, more ethical decisions about how we create a space. It’s definitely possible, but we need everyone to get involved.”